Superior Lobster Bisque is a Shell Game

Crawfish Bisque
Photo: Greg DuPree

The word bisque is often used to describe any smooth and creamy soup, but true bisque is a thing of shellfish beauty, capturing and concentrating the flavor of the main ingredient.

Lobster bisque has always been a fancy dish, so rich and exquisite that a small portion feels sumptuous. When served in a place where fresh lobsters are rare, the indulgence redoubles.

The secret to perfect lobster bisque lies in making stock from the shells, which are more sturdy and flavorful than the tender meat. The earliest recipes for lobster bisque called for dozens of steps that required two days and one flamboyant flambé. We can streamline the process, but the goal remains to wrest every last drop of lobster-y flavor from those shells.

Here are some good tips:

  • When cooking live lobsters, keep the cooking water to use in the stock. When cool enough to handle, remove and reserve the opulent lumps of delicate tail meat to add to the bisque shortly before serving. Save the shells, spindly legs, and everything else (other than the bitter green tomalley) for the stockpot. When beginning with precooked whole lobsters or tails, you can still use the shells.
  • When the lobster feast is separate from bisque making, accumulate and stash the shells in an airtight bag in the freezer until needed, and use fresh water.
  • Crush and flatten the shells to increase the surface area that will come in contact with the bottom of the pot.
  • Toast the shells in a little butter or good olive oil over moderate heat until they darken one or two shades before adding liquid.

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  • Don't skimp on aromatics such as onion, bay leaf, thyme, garlic, and dry white wine that make the stock and bisque opulent instead of watery. Some cooks add tomatoes or tomato paste, although with or without them -- unlike most other shellfish stocks -- red lobster shells give stock a rosy hue that will tint other recipes.
  • Add the tiny bits of precious cooked lobster to the stockpot, but save Simmer (not boil) the stock until it reduces and concentrates the flavor enough to taste of lobster, about 45 minutes.
  • To extract even more flavor, don't strain out the shells as soon as the stock is finished; leave them in until the bisque is complete. Strain the bisque through a fine- mesh sieve and return the liquid to the pot. Puree the solids (shells and all) in a heavy duty blender, stir them back into the pot, and strain again through a fine- mesh sieve lined with a cheese cloth, pressing on the solids to extract as much liquid out as possible.

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  • Although rice is the traditional thickener, most contemporary cooks prefer to use flour for silkier and more stable bisque. Even when pureed, rice-thickened bisque remains a little grainy.
  • For best flavor, let the bisque cool, then cover and refrigerate until chilled, preferably overnight, before reheating gently.
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